Polis comparison of abortion to ‘nose job’ upsets Colorado progressive groups

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Abortion rights supporters gathered on the state Capitol steps in Denver on Tuesday after a leaked draft opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court called for overturning Roe vs. Wade.

Gov. Jared Polis faced harsh criticism from an array of progressive groups Wednesday one day after he compared abortion procedures to other elective surgeries like nose jobs. 

“Bodily autonomy is a human right — to compare it to a ‘nose job’ – a surgery without the history of politicization or violence from its opponents – does an extreme disservice to our movement, and negates the fundamental and long-term impacts that reproductive care or lack thereof has on a person’s life,” said a written statement from seven organizations including Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains and ProgressNow Colorado.

In an interview that aired Tuesday on CPR’s Colorado Matters, Polis made that comparison and repeatedly declined to say whether he would support the use of state tax funds to pay for abortions. Calling it a “hypothetical,” Polis also evaded the question on whether he would support a state Constitutional amendment to preserve a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.

But Polis’s language around the use of state funding for abortions, currently banned in the Colorado Constitution, seems to have particularly rankled progressive groups. Asked directly by Colorado Matters senior host Ryan Warner whether state funds should be used for abortions, Polis compared it to other elective medical procedures.

“Look, you probably get into the situation of: is it a medically required abortion, in that it will jeopardize the life of the mother, or is this something that you're talking about that's more elective? So there's a lot of nuances to that policy. In general, the state doesn't cover elective procedures,” Polis said. “But even if you look at plastic surgery: there's reconstructive plastic surgery if you're in an accident, and then there's such things like a nose job if you want to look better. So, I can't possibly get into what the state insurance plan covers. That's a negotiation we have.”

After the comments had a day to ricochet through Colorado’s progressive community, groups banded together to express their disappointment.

“To say there are ‘nuances’ in the policy action we’re hoping to enact does a disservice to the millions of Coloradans who seek a leader that not only speaks up about protecting abortion but will do anything in their power to remove any barriers that stand in the way of self-affirming healthcare,” said the statement.

Polis’ office declined a request for comment about the groups' statement. 

In the interview, Polis declined to take a position on a state Constitutional amendment protecting the right to an abortion in Colorado. 

“Haven't seen language, but I am pro-choice [and I] want to protect a woman's right to choose. We did it in statute. If you put something similar in the constitution that made sure women and doctors wouldn't be put in jail for any pregnancies, of course I would be inclined to support it, but I'd want to see what that was and what you're doing first. And that there weren't any unintended consequences.”

One advocate for abortion rights said his remarks ran counter to conversations she had with Polis and his staff early in the legislative session when it appeared the governor favored amending the Constitution rather than simply passing a bill preserving in statute the right to an abortion.

Reproductive rights activist Dusti Gurule said she was frustrated.

Gurule heads the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (COLOR) and was part of the coalition that helped pass the Reproductive Health Equity Act at the legislature this spring. Gurule said that at a meeting with Polis and some of his senior staff in late January about the proposed legislation, he pushed to send the issue to voters in the form of an amendment. 

“They were suggesting, or purporting, that running a ballot measure would be a better approach,” said Gurule about the meeting. “And we're like, ‘actually, no, we need this bill. We want your support. We expect that you sign it when we get it through.’”

Polis gave mixed signals about the best approach toward preserving abortion rights in the state

Abortion rights activists had been talking about introducing a bill since early December 2021, when the Supreme Court heard arguments in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization and it appeared possible a majority of justices would support undermining or overturning Roe v Wade.

Advocates and lawmakers had the bill ready when the legislature convened in January, but there were delays behind the scenes about the best time to introduce it. Gurule and Karen Middleton, the president of Cobalt, a grassroots organization which advocates for abortion access and reproductive rights, sought the meeting with Polis when they heard he might favor a different approach. 

“I think that there were some policymakers and the governor who thought that trying to put it into the constitution this year made sense,” said Middelton. “And in a normal year it might have, but the fact that we had the Dobbs decision coming, it didn't.”  

The Reproductive Health Equity Act was introduced as House Bill 1279 on March 3, nearly halfway through the session. Its journey through the legislature was marked by long, contentious debates, as the Republican minority tried to slow it down. It was one of the highest profile bills Democrats passed this year, with Polis signing it into law on April 4. 

Even as the bill became law, abortion rights groups said they intend to ask voters to put similar language in the state constitution, as well as overturn the ban on any state funding for abortions.

Middleton and others said they feel like Polis, who has long declared his support for abortion rights, is looking at the issue through a political lens.  

“I believe he supports abortion rights and he has been a longtime advocate and has been involved in this for years,” said Middleton. “ I think the nature of the way the interview was characterized, you know, one, he has a message he's trying to save people money, he's going into an election.”

Gurule said her understanding of the January conversation was that voter turnout in the midterm election was a key consideration about running a ballot measure. Polis and other Democrats in statewide elected office are on the ballot.

“That was sort of the inference, right? Like this issue brings progressive voters out to vote. I'm like, yeah and don't forget, we're the ones who elected you in office to actually do your job as the governor and/or legislators. So let's do that. And then let's figure out where we can build and add.”

Polis’s main pitch and focus during the legislative session has been efforts to save people money, so he said that would also be a factor he would weigh when it comes to a Constitutional amendment to remove the funding ban. Activists said that was not a topic they discussed with him in January.

Democratic Rep. Meg Froelich was one of the main sponsors of House Bill 1279. She said her top priority is making sure women of color, women in lower-income areas and in rural areas have access to reproductive health care. 

“If you’re saving people money it’s important that you let them control their reproductive destiny.” 

She said the topic “obviously isn’t front and center in his world view.” 

“I am disappointed in his comments. I wish he had more people in his life to talk about what this means to real people's lives.”

Polis has long had a libertarian bent that doesn’t always mesh with progressive politics. But he has risen to become among the leaders of the state’s Democrats because he is with them more often than he is in conflict with them. 

“We definitely need to keep him in office,” said Gurule. “Any of the Republican options would be devastating to everything that we do. But I think my frustration with Democrats sometimes is they just sort of sit on their laurels. Like there's so much work to be done and so much progress that we can make. There's never a time to just stop and say, ‘oh, I check that box. I'm good here.’”

“That's something that we're actively working to ensure that he knows that, you know, we're still gonna hold him accountable.”